This year’s largest event at Brisbane Festival uses the river as its canvas to tell an early chapter in the encounters between Europeans and First Nations peoples.
Elders are projected onto the screens of water. Image supplied.
River of Light has become integral to Brisbane Festival. This light and water show has drawn the focus back onto Brisbane River and with it a non-traditional arts audience. It’s an audience that could be easily be attracted with another eye-catching light spectacle (common to Sydney’s Vivid or Canberra’s Enlighten festivals) but River of Light layers storytelling on the spectacle.
The production is Indigenous-led by Yuggera and Toorbal man Shannon Ruska, who last year shared the origin story of the river from the battle of the Goanna and Dolphin. This year Ruska and his collaborators at Liquid Oracle tell the next chapter: the arrival of Europeans. It’s a story told from the shore with a First Nations perspective – with Ruska's narrative of a first encounter at Mugumpin (Country of Storms) known today as Moreton Island.
While First Nations people couldn’t understand the language of the ‘pale and starving visitors’ – actually castaway former convicts – the visitors ‘could understand food that was cooking on our fires’. The ex-convicts were welcomed as they ‘painted their bodies, and danced around the fires by night’ according to Ruska. Months later, surveyor-general John Oxley arrives in the ‘biggest canoe’ and the display shows archival images of his sailing vessel, The Mermaid.
While this story plays out, the projections tell the story: Indigenous elders appear like spirits and Oxley is shown in contrast as a crisp archive image projected over the spray of a water screen. Later, the images hop in staccato cuts to suggest Indigenous dance (at the opening, this was echoed by a performance from Ruska and other dancers). The whole effect is created by a floating rig weighing more than 25 tonnes, including 8 lasers to trace out finer details. Music switches between styles to give the 10-minute performance pace and it culminates in a burst of colour and fanfare.
It would be easy to dismiss River of Light as populist or not even ‘real art’. It doesn’t easily fit into performance or visual art as it combines elements of both. But for the crowds gathering on the banks of Brisbane River – an estimated 500,000 over the festival – it is the perfect cultural entry point, a place to watch an encounter of artforms, just as the Indigenous people once watched and welcomed new arrivals.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
River of Light
Created by Shannon Ruska and Liquid Oracle
6-28 September 2019
Treasury Brisbane Arcadia, Brisbane QLD
The writer was a guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing.